Mania of the least endearing Victorian

Extreme Measures
January 14, 2005

One significant Englishman it is hard to regret missing the chance to meet is Francis Galton, the childless father of eugenics. To the racism, sexism and assumption of superiority he owed to his class and culture, he added an arrogance, obsessiveness, self-absorption and lack of tact all his own. For all his influence, he had scant notion how to attract support for projects, and his innovative ideas were advanced with little regard for standards of evidence or argument.

He deserves some sympathy, too. He spent much of his life coming to terms with his dismal failure to cope with the most exacting academic formation of his era - the maths tripos at Cambridge. He resisted succumbing to the temptations of an inheritance handsome enough to grant him a life of indolence and hedonism. He had a certain restless energy that, his precarious mental health permitting, constantly sought expression in what he believed were progressive enterprises. And there were real achievements: in exploration, meteorology, psychology, anthropology and statistics. Even so, the figure emerging from the pages of Martin Brookes' book is hardly attractive. The cover depicts an English eccentric, but the man within seems a sure candidate for least endearing Victorian.

The publisher describes Brookes' account as a "lively and unorthodox" biography. In truth, it is as orthodox as can be. The author is a former research scientist (he spent some time at the Galton Laboratory in London) and has written a rather good popular science book. As a biographer, he sticks to the basics of the story, without delving too deeply into motives or broader social movements. The focus is almost always on the single subject, and the treatment is chronological. Much is based on Galton's own writings and on reviews of his books and essays. The context of the times is fairly thinly rendered, in the fashion of a chapter on exploration that begins with the declaration that "Britain in the 1840s was a country on the move". Some of the specifics are overfamiliar, too.

The debate that followed On the Origin of Species is epitomised by the clash between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860, even though it is now well known that the quotes about apes and grandfathers are more to do with what Huxley wished he had said rather than what he came up with on the day.

A biography of Galton could hardly fail to be interesting, and this one moves along fairly entertainingly, from African journeys through innumerable personal projects after his return to London and on to his preoccupation with improving human quality. This was fuelled by the theory of natural selection published in 1859 by Galton's cousin Charles Darwin.

Brookes shows well how this tied in with Galton's penchant for measurement to generate serious inquiries into the distribution of human characteristics. And he does not fail to situate this as part of Galton's vision of a eugenics that it is hard not to read today as proto-fascist.

Interesting, then, but not completely satisfying. Even for a book with no scholarly pretensions, the biographical route followed here is narrow. The reader does not learn much of the earlier history of the ideas about human improvement that Galton developed, or about how this rather peculiar man's mania for counting and calculation fitted in so well with the Victorian culture of measurement. These are academic concerns, but they would enrich a popular biography, too, as recent assaults on Mount Darwin richly attest.

Brookes set his sights lower, and it shows.

Jon Turney is visiting fellow in science and technology studies, University College London.

Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton

Author - Martin Brookes
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 298
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7475 6666 6

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